Starkville school board members voted to table the issue of uniforms Tuesday night after hearing from representatives of a roomful of community members who came opposed to the issue.
The board heard from Anastasia Elder, a parent, and Kelly Oliveri, a high school student, who gave reasons why they objected to school uniforms. They also heard from Sue Snow, a retired educator, who spoke of her positive experience with school uniforms and gave her arguments for them.
The 25 seats in the Starkville School District”s board room were full, and more than 20 more people crowded the hallway outside to listen. A school resource officer stood guard in the door to not let any more people in the room than could be seated.
At one point when the conversation level rose in the hall, he shut the door, closing the public”s access to the public meeting. Voices could be heard outside protesting that they couldn”t hear what was going on. A few minutes later the door opened and remained open to the mostly silent attendees in the hallway.
Later in the meeting, board member Bill Weeks noted that closing the door was not a good idea.
“We were probably in violation of the Mississippi Open Meeting”s Law when Officer Shumaker closed the door,” Weeks said. “We should have made accommodations for the crowd” and not left them in the hall, he said to applause.
His comments came in criticism of how the school district handled the matter of uniforms when they were placed on the January agenda. Weeks and Keith Coble were the no-votes in January on the 3-2 vote to adopt a policy requiring student and teacher uniforms in the Starkville School District.
Weeks said he received “many, many” telephone calls about the uniform issue, and he gave the school district a D grade on how it handled the matter in regards to community involvement.
He made the motion, seconded by Coble, to table the matter until an open meeting on the subject is held. The vote carried with Weeks, Coble and Walter Taylor in favor and Eddie Myles and Pickett Wilson opposed.
The board asked Superintendent Judy Couey to set a date this week for the upcoming forum.
Before this vote, the board heard the public comments on the subject.
Elder said the diverse group of people she represented have strong opinions on the uniform policy and are unhappy with the process by which the board moved forward and disregarded public opinion.
She said the public was brought into the process twice through opinion surveys, with the larger sample showing a 67 percent majority opposed to uniforms. These surveys were set aside as inconclusive, but were the only formal attempts at a measure of community support.
“Our only mechanics to voice opinions was duly ignored,” Elder said.
She said the matter appeared quite suddenly on the agenda in January after being silent for several months, and those who came to the meeting to express their opinions felt shut out.
Elder presented several ideas on uniforms and safety. Among these were that uniforms limit individuality; concerns about the cost and the extra expense, time and effort in buying and maintaining special clothes for school; and the financial burden to the school district to purchase uniforms for those who can”t in an already economically challenging time.
She said research has proven no link between better behavior, attendance or attitudes when uniforms are worn, school administrators would have to watch for dress code and now style violations, and uniforms will not address safety issues as desired.
“Less extreme measures can be taken,” Elder said, suggesting special t-shirts for field trips, name tags, identification cards or arm bands can be used.
“Most safety issues are not from the outside … and wearing uniforms could make (identifying) the perpetrator difficult,” Elder said.
She ended with a plea that the board reconsider their policy, revisit the issue and reverse their earlier decision.
“We request you seek input on the matter and listen to your constituents,” Elder said. “Do the right thing. Get parental input and revisit the issue.”
She presented petitions that she said contained about 1,000 signatures of people dissatisfied with the process by which the decision was made. Her comments received applause by a majority of the audience.
After asking the board if they would revisit the issue, Elder sat back and waited for the board”s answer. Board president Walter Taylor answered for the group.
“We”ll take your comments under advisement,” Taylor told her.
Oliveri, a 10th grader, spoke next and pleaded with the school board to come up with “real solutions to serious problems in our school district. Uniforms will not make us smarter or learn better.”
Oliveri said uniforms will not cut back on distractions and will not make school safer. She said she is already afraid to walk down some hallways because of fights that break out, and uniforms will not change this.
She said the expense of uniforms will be difficult for some families to afford, and they won”t boost morale.
“We may be only students, but we want a voice in school decisions,” Oliveri said. “If safety is the reason for making us do something we hate, then why can”t we come up with a better solution together?”
Oliveri”s comments also met with widespread audience applause.
Last up was Snow, who said she taught in a school district where uniforms were instituted, and it was a positive experience.
Snow said the Junior Auxiliary bought uniforms for students whose parents couldn”t afford them, and the school maintained a supply of used or outgrown uniforms that parents had access to as they dressed their children according to code.
“We never had a problem with a parent who said they could not afford a uniform,” Snow said.
She said the school did not have problems with children wearing non-uniform colors, and the effect uniforms had on the students and their performance was excellent.
“I can tell you for a fact, in our school, it affected learning,” Snow said. “Absolutely, positively. It has a positive effect on learning.”
She said distractions from jewelry or styles was removed and students arrived ready to learn.
“On the days they didn”t wear their uniform, it was very different,” Snow said.
Later she added that “A child in uniform is accepted for who they are, not what they wear. Every child deserves that chance to let their personalities develop.”
Snow”s comments received no applause from the audience.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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